Boing Boing special feature Interview: Yoko Ono By Xeni Jardin

Artist and peace activist Yoko Ono (78), wife of the late John Lennon, was recently honored with the 8th Hiroshima Art Prize. The award honors artists whose work has contributed to peace. To commemorate this, The Hiroshima Museum of Contemporary Art is hosting "The Road of Hope: Yoko Ono 2011," an exhibit honoring the “spirit of Hiroshima that yearns for permanent world peace and prosperity for all humanity."

The show is on display through October 16, 2011. It features new works by Yoko Ono inspired by the survival of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and by the disasters that struck Japan in March, 2011, "with hope for the future."

I spoke to Yoko Ono in Japan a few days after she received the Hiroshima prize. She was in Tokyo to speak about "The Road of Hope" at the MORI art museum.

Yoko Ono at the MORI museum last week

Xeni Jardin, Boing Boing: A few days ago, you were in Hiroshima accepting an award for your your legacy of art in the service of peace. You were a young girl here in Japan when the event happened. What was that day like?

Yoko Ono: Yes, I think I was 12. It was a shock of course, but at the time, initially we didn’t know what happened. I heard about it from somebody in the village. It’s a very, very different kind of bomb, they said, we have to immediately stop the war. It didn't make sense to me at all, in any way. We didn't understand.

XJ: At what point did the magnitude or the nature of what had happened become more clear to you?

YO: Well, every day, from then on. They were reporting in newspapers and magazines what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and it was just -- it was something that you just could not understand. It was just so bad.

XJ: Trying to grasp the full scope of what had happened must have been something that unfolded over many years for you, your family, and for all of your fellow countrymen and women.

YO: Well you see, it was because of Pearl Harbor, and so the rest of the world was very, very cold to us when the bombs dropped. Like, “Oh, they deserved it.” That kind of thinking.

And of course in those days, the idea of what an enemy is, and what is fair to do to enemies were very different. For America to have bombed civilians was something that most people accepted. But women and children, old and young, they all suffered. If it had happened not to Japan but in a Western country, maybe the West would have felt differently about it. But that’s how it was. And the Japanese people, especially the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they had to endure the whole thing without any kindness or compassion from the world. Despite the meanness directed at them, even after the bombing, they stood up and survived, and they created a normal situation out of the ashes of that horror, which I believe is amazing.

The whole of Japan helped them. I learned when I was in Hiroshima, for instance, that many trees were sent from other towns throughout Japan, to be planted there to renew the bare ground. People throughout the country tried to help, but Hiroshima and Nagasaki had to stand up on their own, as well, of course.

And in a very strange way, even though they were victims and martyrs of a terrible thing, now they are not victims. They are the people who created a strong, strong recovery. They show to the world that this is what we can do, instead of all the myths that were created about those places — the myth that you could never enter those places after what happened, and that you couldn’t return into those cities. Just walking in there is dangerous.

But now, they’re two beautiful cities again. And the world sees that.

XJ: The fact that they were able to survive and to create a place that was habitable is amazing.

YO: Yes, but the point is that means that it takes the rest of the world, too, because what happened there did not just happen to Hiroshima or Nagasaki or to Japan, but to the entire world. This was a world event, and we all suffered from it, and we must all learn from it.

XJ: Your return to Hiroshima this week was connected with your artwork over the past decades, and your work for peace. I wonder if you could speak a little bit about your thoughts about the connection between art and survival, about human creativity as a tool that helps individuals and communities prevail over suffering. This is a theme I’ve seen a lot in your work.

YO: Creativity is part of the growth of human beings, just like creativity is part of the growth of nature. And whenever something stops your growth, that’s when you really have to fight. It’s very important that we keep creating things.

Why? To show the process of activity, to show that we’re still alive. To create is to express life.

Yoko Ono delivers a lecture at the MORI Art Museum in Tokyo

XJ: Just this year, Japan experienced another tremendous disaster and the scope of this disaster, the earthquake, the tsunami, and now the Fukushima nuclear crisis, the scope of which we’re still learning.

YO: It is a disaster, and it is ongoing, and we still do not truly know the scope. Many people ask me, “What do you think we should do about the nuclear crisis?” I'm saying, “I'm just as ignorant as you are about it.” This is something where we have to just see what happens. But while we are seeing what happens, we can keep on creating a healthy life as much as we can. And we must.

XJ: You said earlier that people thought Hiroshima and Nagasaki would become permanent, uninhabitable dead zones. With the current crisis here in Japan, I’ve heard people in Tokyo talk about people from towns near the exclusion zone being shunned as if they have a contagious disease, as if you could "catch" cesium contamination; people are talking about that entire zone just being sort of locked off forever. The families, even the children who are from there are in some cases being treated as if they were lepers. It’s as if that very sad part of history is repeating itself.

YO: Yeah, exactly.

See, the thing is — that’s where I’m seeing the road of hope, because leprosy was something — it was considered as something that was like the dead end. All the lepers were sent to an island and they were supposed to be there until they died or something. And AIDS, in the beginning it was believed that all people who had AIDS should be shunned and feared, and would die similarly.

All that is not true now, because there was a sudden change in understanding that was created by scientists. But we just have to allow a certain space in emotion or understanding, we have to know that anything could happen, in either direction: the whole world after this disaster could all die together, this situation might leak to all the other countries as well.

Or, we’re just suddenly going to find something. And even the people who are contaminated and we’re thinking, “Oh they are lepers” or something, they are going to be well or they’re going to be better than us.

I went to Hiroshima and I saw this tree that was directly under the bomb. And this tree survived, and it looks even better than some of the other trees. You can never know what will happen with that incredible release of energy. It can kill, but it might be an energy that’s going to bring some incredible, incredible growth. Those are things that we don’t know. Now we’re being extremely emotional and fearful in our judgment, and that’s okay. It’s understandable. But it’s much better to keep a little space there for some kind of totally unexpected situation to happen in a good way.

And by being so emotional and so angry and so determined that nothing good is going to happen, we may not let it happen.

Some people say that I'm very optimistic. I'm not optimistic. I'm just practical. If you want to give up, then go ahead: give up. But I'm not about to give up.

And there are many people like me, who don’t want to give up life. And so all of us should just — the ones who don’t really want to give up life, we have to walk this road of hope together.

That’s what I think. And we’re doing it. We’re doing it together.

Yoko Ono today published an editorial concerning Hiroshima Day at Imagine Peace.

More at Boing Boing

Yoko Ono Embraces Creative Commons? O Yes!

Essay collection to benefit Japan quake: Gibson and Ono

June 1, 1969: “Give Peace a Chance”

22 Responses to “Interview: Yoko Ono”

  1. benher says:

    Congratulations Yoko!!

  2. nosehat says:

    Great interview.  I love this quote:

    Creativity is part of the growth of human beings, just like creativity is
    part of the growth of nature. And whenever something stops your growth,
    that’s when you really have to fight. It’s very important that we keep
    creating things.

    Words to live by.

  3. xenphilos says:

    It was interesting to see part of the personality and worldview about Yoko Ono. I only knew of her from her connection to the Beatles, so I’m glad to know more about her as a person.

    • millie fink says:

      Great interview, glad to see it here.

      Such a shame (and a sham) that a lot of people still blame her for the Beatles breakup.

    • microdot says:

      yoko was performing with ornette coleman long before she met john lennon. if you have read j g  ballard’s sequel to empire of the sun, the kindness of women, you will recognize yoko’s appearance in his world….she was one of the fluxus group….i saw her recntly on french tv performing with sean and she is better than ever.

  4. My favorite bit:

    “All that [hopelessness] is not true now, because there was a sudden change in understanding that was created by scientists.”


  5. Eddie Perkins says:

    Nice to see an interview about her as a person and not just as ‘the former wife of John Lennon.’ She’s more interesting than just that. Thanks, Xeni Jardin.

  6. penguinchris says:

    Inconsequential perhaps but it was interesting to learn that she was 12 at the time the bombs dropped. That threw me for a minute because I knew John Lennon wasn’t that old. She was several years older than him, apparently.

    Anyway, thanks for the interesting interview. As others have noted, it’s good to hear more about her separate from the John Lennon connection as she is quite interesting and thoughtful on her own.

    Finally, I was very interested to hear what she said about the world’s reaction to the bombings, compared to the world’s reaction to modern-day catastrophes. Of course it’s different in a war setting, but I hadn’t thought about that – and it raises an interesting question – they had to recover on their own, with no sympathy from others, but today natural disaster and terrorism/war zones receive tons of outside aid. Which results in a stronger recovery (in all senses)?

    The answer is obvious, but tricky in the real world. While Japan will recover and thrive from its current crises, places that aren’t as highly developed won’t, necessarily. The trick is then to only provide as much aid as is necessary, not to build an empire (e.g. the British Empire and the current MidEast debacles).

  7. Tau'ma says:

    Thanks to all walking this road of hope together.

  8. futnuh says:

    Well done, Xeni, great interview – insightful questions that allowed Ms. Ono ample room to expound on a pretty amazing world view.

  9. fxq says:

    I used to make fun of Yoko until one day an anvil hit me and I became a Quaker. I’ve forgiven my youthful self but I still feel I owe her an apology.

    Sorry Yoko and thanks.

  10. NelC says:

    Yoko has been one of my favourite artists since, well, since John was murdered. I don’t always like her work, but I like the fact that it exists. And the more I hear about her, the more I like her.

  11. I never got the Beatles, or the Stones, despite being a Brit.  I’ll keep on listening to Dylan and being thankful that some people will not be swerved from their own personal vision.

    Go Yoko.

  12. David Tallan says:

    A lot of good and interesting points made in this interview. However, i noticed Yoko Ono saying “For America to have bombed civilians was something that most people accepted. But women and children, old and young, they all suffered. If it had happened not to Japan but in a Western country, maybe the West would have felt differently about it.” 

    I think that the evidence is pretty clear that strategic bombing broadly targeting enemy civilian populations, women and children, old and young was acceptable in Europe (Western) as well as Asia. Just ask the good folk of Dresden.

  13. blueelm says:

    I’m so happy to see this. She has been one of my favorite people for a ling time. Frankly, I don’t give a fuck about the Beatles and never have (generational/cultural?). Why do we put so much importance on some damned band?

    She was an integral member of much more cutting edge and risky art than the Beatles ever managed. 

    I feel bad that she had to go through all that, and all because of love I suppose.

    It’s sad.

    Comparing a stupid pop rock band breaking up to the death of thousands of people? GDIAF. Seriously. 

    • Crunt says:

      Are you trying to bait responses? It’s ok to say you don’t like their music, but you don’t get why so much importance is placed on them? They were innovators, motivators, trend-setters for fashion and ideas, cultural icons, conduits of the human condition, personable, great swimmers, snappy dressers, etc.

  14. Bleepo says:

    I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t grok Yoko Ono’s art until some time after I first was exposed to it. But, like the George Harrison lyric, “the more I go inside, the more there is to see…”, the deeper I looked into it, the richer I realized her work, and her message, is. I am a dedicated admirer of this very gifted, brave and truthful woman. Thank you for a beautiful piece, Ms. Jardin. 

  15. tp1024 says:

    a) Read some history – all of you (that includes me, my knowledge isn’t perfect).

    Japan in 1945 wasn’t just Japan – it was also Korea and Manchuria (ruled since 1937 by the old Chinese Emperor of the (Manchu) Qing Dynasty that ended in 1912). Then as now the Japanese main islands were poor in resources and Manchuria became in a way the industrial heartland of Japan. One of the main reasons Japan capitulated on August 15th was that the Soviet Army started an invasion on August 9th and overran Manchuria with superior numbers and equipment and no hope for the Japanese to defend it. (Germany capitulated on May 9th, which freed Soviet resources for the invasion – that was agreed upon long before that, I think at Yalta, but might be wrong.)

    The aftermath in China – precipitated by the collapse of Japan – was even more ugly than in Europe and a sign of things to come. The Soviets plundered the industrial base of Manchuria to compensate for their huge losses in Europe and deprived the Chinese, who build all this stuff for the Japanese, of their own work. The Americans supported the Chinese Nationalists in the brutal civil war that was raging in the mainland, while the Chinese Communists were supported by the rural population and the Soviet military and eventually won – driving the Nationalists out to Taiwan. Neither side deserves any praise here at all.

    The Japanese were meanwhile less concerned about Hiroshima or Nagasaki (the Japanese knew very well about the potential of nuclear warheads, Uranium enrichment and Plutonium breeding, it’s basic physics and chemistry, hard to put into practice but not hard to understand) – especially as the much larger and much more important capital of Tokyo had already been bombed to the ground by very conventional carpet bombing (and a greater death toll). Those bombs were acts of terror by the Americans aimed more at Stalin’s Soviet Union in the post-war period than at Japan.

    b) More realistic education about the effects of radiation is extremely important. All the coastal cities around Fukushima Daiichi were evacuated in haste – despite the devastation that the tsunami wrought and the fact that lots of people were trapped in the rubble. Hundreds died needlessly.

    The thread of a small amount of radiation over a short period of time was small compared to the danger of being trapped in the rubble. Some simple safety precautions like evacuating non-essential people, clear instructions to follow weather reports on radio, locally deploying a few people with dosimeters or geiger counters and (again) relaying their information via radio to the rescue operations (in case an immediate evacuation due to high radiation becomes necessary on short notice – which it never was) would have been entirely possible – but those things were not even considered. Because of the irrational fear of small doses of radiation that was blown far out of proportion compared to necessity of search and rescue operations.

    Strangely enough, when it became clear that the Fujinuma dam in Fukushima prefecture was going to collapse, several people went to the dam to try and stabilize it somehow, to protect people downstream – despite the very great and immediate danger to their lives should they fail and the dam break.

    In the end, they failed and four of them died, another eight died in a village that was washed away – but nobody thought the great danger those people had to face wasn’t worth trying to safe the people.

  16. Wordguy says:

    Interesting article in today’s Sunday Boston Globe about the work of historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa and his ideas about the affect of the atomic bombs and why Japan really surrendered.

  17. Nice article. I respect Yoko Ono, not because She is a supporter of gay-rights but she is really talented.

  18. michaelismichael says:

    Cheers to Boing Boing for this excellent article. Boos to the commenters who can’t pass up the opportunity to comment about the Beatles. To them, I say, she wasn’t in the band. Can’t she be her own person? Oh, wait, I forgot, she is a woman, so of course, who she was married to is much more important than who she is.

  19. Yoko: thank you.

    Trolls: and thank you for giving COMMENT CENSORSHIP!!!!! such a good name today.

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